“Fragments of the Past”: Political Prints of Post-war Singapore

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  P P  P-W S  / e Heritage Journale Heritage Journal,  vol. 2, no. 1 (2005): pp. – Lim Cheng Tju is a junior college history teacher who researches, cartoons and woodcuts in Singapore. His articles on comic art and political prints have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture, Teaching and Learning, International Journal of Comic Art   and  Print Quarterly . “Fragments of the Past”: Political Prints of Post-war Singapore by Lim Cheng TjuRaes Junior College  As pointed out by Walter Benjamin, history can be made up from discarded fragments that do not necessarily t into any established narratives. He described the surviving shards of the past as “fragments of true historical experience which have been scattered by an explosion”. 1   Indeed research on the history of woodblock prints in Singapore often depends on such shrapnel and debris that are left out of the master narrative of the island state’s postwar political history, the so-called “Singapore Story”. 2  One has to count on the personal anecdotes of artists, on their oral testimonies of their involvement in the decolonization  struggle of 1950s and 1960s Singapore. O ne such story was related by Tan Wee Huan, a 1955 graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, who retired from being a graphic artist and had returned to painting fulltime. After graduation, Tan worked as an artist for e Straits Times . In 1955, he was asked by the People’s Action Party (PAP), the ruling party of Singapore since 1959, to carve a woodcut print for their rst anniversary publication,  People’s Action Party 1st Anniversary Celebration Souvenir (27-11-1955) . at he did when he went down to Punggol to attend a PAP rally given by Lim Chin Siong, the strongest leftist PAP leader in the 1950s. After he had nished the woodblock print, he brought the print down to the PAP Tanjong Pagar branch and was paid $2 by Lee Kuan Yew, the future Prime Minister of Singapore, for his work. 3  e print accompanied a Chinese article credited to Lee entitled “Our Stance”. It depicts a PAP rally from the point of view of a blue-  L C T e Heritage Journal /  collar worker (as suggested by the attention given to the muscles and sinews of the arms) who is raising both arms in support of the party and an expression of the mood of inevitable victory in the ght against colonialism in the 1950s. Independence and democracy was to be achieved by group action and party activism as indicated in the Chinese wordings below the print. Such stories were only recovered during the research process done for “History rough Prints: Woodblock Prints In Singapore”, an exhibition on the history of woodblock prints in Singapore that ran at the Singapore History Museum (SHM) from August 1998 to June 1999. It was a show held in conjunction with the Printmaking Society (Singapore). ese historical fragments highlight the ephemeral nature of woodblock prints. Tan neither kept the print nor remembered the publication that his print appeared in, much less preserved the block. It was only when a photocopy of the image was presented to him that he identied it as his work. As all prints come in series, there isn’t any one and srcinal print. Due to this, photocopies were thus used in the 1998 SHM woodcut exhibition when the prints could not be found. Such was the case with Tan’s PAP rally print. But that also meant that the museum could not purchase certain works because no existing print could be found. None of Tan’s work and Lee Kee Boon’s woodblock prints could be “collected” as they did not survive the ravages of time. Lee was a contemporary of Tan at NAFA in the mid-1950s. His “Blood And Sweat” is an important visual document and a lasting image of the issues of Chinese education and Nanyang University (Nantah), especially in the light of the recent debate on the revival of the so-called Nantah spirit and the renaming of the university back to Nantah. 4  Fortunately, there was a print on the fund-raising activities for Nantah by Choo Keng Kwang that was exhibited and eventually bought by the SHM for its collection. “Charity Ride for Nantah” is a  visual depiction of the famous collection drive by rickshaw riders in Singapore in 1954 5  (Fig. 1). is event is still much remembered by the ’50s generation as a milestone for the common men doing their bit for the greater good, something we do not see much of in today’s society. 6  But more on the SHM’s woodblock print collection later.In short, these prints reect the post-war history of Singapore and its road to independence and nationhood. However the history  P P  P-W S  / e Heritage Journal  of woodblock prints in Singapore, despite the vibrancy of the medium in the 1950s and 1960s, has not been well documented until the 1998 exhibition. e formation of the Contemporary Printmaking Association in 1980 did not keep the tradition of woodblock printing alive as it promoted new printmaking methods then. It was only when the association was renamed Printmaking Society (Singapore) in January 1998 that interest in woodblock printing was revived through its participation in the SHM woodcut print exhibition. Research on the contentious areas of Singapore’s political past, especially in relation to the state’s use of art and culture for nation-building, is limited. e pre-1942 history of woodblock prints has been documented in Yeo Man ong’s seminal  Essays on the History of Pre-war Chinese Painting in Singapore , especially his articles on the importance of Dai Yunlang, a Straits-born artist-activist who brought Lu Xun’s Modern Woodcut Movement to Singapore in the 1930s. Dai’s essays and woodblock prints in Wenman Gie  ( World of Culture and Cartoons ) and  Jinri Yishu  ( Today’s Art  ), two art supplements he edited for  Nanyang Siang Pau  between 1935 and 1936, would greatly inuence the post-war development of woodblock prints as a medium of social and political expression in the 1950s and 1960s. 7    Fig. 1  L C T e Heritage Journal /  Art teacher Foo Kwee Horng updated Yeo’s work in his research on the pre-war history of woodcuts and cartoons in Singapore for his MA dissertation at the National Institute of Education in Singapore.e earliest writings on the post-war history of woodblock prints were done by the practitioners themselves, who wrote rather reminiscently of the 1950s woodcut scene. Cartoonist Ong Shih Cheng (pen-name: Ong Yih) wrote many articles about woodblock prints and artists that, fortunately for researchers, have been compiled in his essay collections. 8  Ong was one of the two editors of Selection of Woodcuts and Caricatures by Singapore and Malayan  Artists , an important collection of woodcuts and cartoons published in 1955. An srcinal copy of the book was exhibited at the 1998 SHM woodcut show, donated by the other editor of the book, Ho Kah Leong, an ex-PAP Member of Parliament. e other two practitioners who wrote about the history of woodblock prints in Singapore were Foo Chee San and Tan Tee Chie. e current president of the Printmaking Society (Singapore), Chng Seok Tin also wrote about Singaporean printmakers. 9  e general books on the history of Singaporean art only touched on woodblock prints briey in their discussions on the Equator Art Society of the 1950s and 1960s. 10  e focus of Singapore’s post-war art history has always been on the Nanyang Style, focusing on Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen Li Ying and Lim Cheng Hoe. 11  e only scholarly work which treated woodblock prints as a crucial part of Singapore’s art history was an MA thesis by Joyce Fan, the co-curator of the 1998 SHM woodcut show. 12  She also curated the National University of Singapore Museums’ 2002 woodcut exhibition.Perhaps one of the reasons why the woodblock prints of the 1950s did not enter the mainstream historiography of Singapore’s art history until 1998 (despite pioneers like Cheong Soo Pieng dabbling in woodcut and contributing a print in Selection of Woodcuts and Caricatures by Singapore and Malayan Artists ) was the politically sensitive nature of the works. Interestingly, 1998 was also the year Lee Kuan Yew released volume one of his memoirs, in which he acknowledged the contributions of the Chinese students in Singapore’s struggle for independence. e leftist energies and elements of the ’50s have now been given a reprieve. It could be  P P  P-W S  / e Heritage Journal  taken that it was now “sanctioned” to show these political works again. For example, Lim Mu Hue’s “Love” (1962), a scene of injured demonstrators being cared for by friends, was reprinted in the book Singapore: Journey into Nationhood  , released in conjunction with the 1998 National Education show, e Singapore Story. 13  A similar scene is found in Koeh Sia Yong’s “Visiting the Injured” (1958) (Fig. 2), one of the many prints SHM bought for its collection after the 1998 woodcut show. Friends or colleagues, possibly union representatives, were portrayed as caring for the injured worker and his poor family. Such pro-worker images were common in the works of woodcut artists in the 1950s and ’60s. Koeh’s “Complaint (Pineapples Plantation Incident)” (1967) (Fig. 3) is an impressive print measuring 30 by 30 cm that epitomizes the social realist art movement in Singapore — it is a powerful piece of social commentary that agitates for political action against the greedy capitalists. Other works by Koeh that expressed the plight of the common men include “Illegal Hawking” (1957) (Fig. 4) and “Indian Workers Laying Electric Cables” (1958) (Fig. 5). 14  e latter is an interesting representation of the workers, emphasizing not only their harsh working conditions but also their masculinity. is is not  just a depiction of the suering workers; it can also be read as an image of empowerment of the labouring class, to which society owes its present success and stability. e quiet dignity of the worker can be found in Koeh’s “Indian Worker at Bukit Merah Bricks Factory”  Fig. 2
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